By Greg Riley
Special to The Fincastle Herald
In 2020, the year of Botetourt’s 250th anniversary, many activities were cancelled because of Covid. Fortunately, the literary pursuit of some county individuals and historical research did proceed and the results are still being reaped. We owe a great deal of gratitude to our hometown newspapers for allowing us this opportunity to tell the stories of Botetourt’s rich heritage. I was contacted by one of those papers and asked to write stories of local landmarks, and those stories also appeared in The Fincastle Herald.
One of those landmarks was the farm known as Stonelea, in the Trinity community. To say it’s a small world is an understatement as I was contacted by Chicago, Ill., native Shavonnah Hunt, who read the article. As it turns out, she is interested in genealogy and we discussed the monumental challenges of locating ancestors of African American origin as hers were. I was surprised to learn that the article on Stonelea, from a small town newspaper, had reached her and she explained she has a computer program that sends an alert when something of interest is published that relates to her family line. (This is a great tip for amateur genealogists). She knew that her ancestors worked on a farm in Botetourt County called Stonelea but had no more information until she read the article.
She immediately contacted me and, last year, was able to visit Botetourt and I showed her the site that I knew well. The owners were gracious in allowing us to tour the grounds. Shavonnah and her husband were guided to the old Fincastle African American cemetery as well. She was so impressed with her time here, that she decided to organize a second trip.
A few weeks ago, Shavonnah arrived on a chartered bus to Botetourt with around 50 people aboard. They hailed from many parts of the United States. The group was excited to visit their ancestral homes and hear about the history of the Native American raid at the site before the present site was built. Shavonnah was most interested in learning that her maiden name of Freeman was likely due to the fact that, although they were African American, they were not enslaved. The Methodist minister, the Rev. Edward Mitchell, actually built the home and her ancestors worked for him as paid laborers. The same pastor commissioned work for the Fincastle United Methodist Church that proudly stands in his honor near the Godwin Cemetery.
The group also toured the historic property known as Rustic Lodge on Blacksburg Road in the Woodland community. The hosts were also gracious and allowed us to enter the home and see the original finishings. The lawn with its long rail fencing and 200-year-old barn that matched the house were impressive. Shavonnah explained to the group that this site was also in their family line, but this farm housed her ancestors that were, unfortunately, enslaved by Col. Nathaniel Burwell, a member of the Virginia House of Delegates. Suitably named, Rustic Lodge was created as a retreat to escape Eastern Virginia heat in the summer months and soon became a large plantation. His friend and fellow Delegate George Hancock, the builder of the original Santillane home, advised him to move to the area.
The tour concluded with a stop at the new Botetourt Historic Museum, as they were eager to find any connection to the African American culture that existed in Botetourt. They did not find more information but were thrilled to be able to witness firsthand what life was like for their pioneer families. We would like to thank Emily Talbot-Guillotte for her hospitality while there.
Their visit was brief, but is an inspiration to each and every one of us. We should strive to realize all that our county has to offer in terms of historical significance, culture and abundant genealogy research to a diverse America. This is an opportunity too important and we must not lose focus of our history as we pursue grand economic dreams. There are people in the United States that are counting on Botetourt County to preserve their structures and their stories, no matter the cost.
We would like to thank our hosts for the unique opportunity to tour their homes and the opportunity to allow these African Americans to feel the connection to the past and their roots. Our gratitude to them and the media outlets that made this possible is immeasurable.